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In the UK, Online Petitions Are Gaining Steam

BY Nick Judd | Tuesday, August 16 2011

A new online petition initiative in the United Kingdom is so popular that its website crashed on its first day in operation — so popular, in fact, that it has some people worried that too much democracy might be a bad thing.

Launched earlier this month, the UK's online e-petitions initiative — apparently a rehash of an earlier petitoning initiative from a previous government — allows any British citizen to petition the government for an item to be debated in the House of Commons. If a petition passes muster by government standards and collects over 100,000 signatures within a year, then it becomes due for debate in Parliament during time set aside for "backbencher debates" — discourse between lawmakers who don't have a government portfolio or a prominent spot in the opposition, set up through a new committee in the Commons.

But debate time is scarce for people outside of the government, and some commentators argue that the petition threshold is too low. Here's the BBC's Ross Hawkins:

Earlier this year the Sun won 100,000 supporters for its own petition to freeze fuel tax.

In 2007 almost 1.8 million registered their objection to road-pricing on the now defunct Downing Street petitions site. A demand to make the TV presenter Jeremy Clarkson Prime Minister got almost half way to that target.

One of the campaigners for a death penalty debate - Paul Staines, who blogs as Guido Fawkes - is an unlikely advocate for a higher bar.

He said: "I'm very confident that I'll get 100,000 signatures in a matter of weeks if not months and I think that they should perhaps make it a little bit tougher if they are going to take this seriously."

Being a fan of Clarkson's show, Top Gear, I've got to admit the idea of having him drive a supercar-du-jour to 10 Downing Street every day has a certain appeal — but as the leader of the House of Commons says the 100,000-signature mark for petitions can be raised or lowered if it seems to be too high or low, and the petitions merely create a spark for a debate rather than compel the government to act, it won't be a matter of serious concern.

The most popular petition on the site now asks Parliament to consider revoking social benefits for people convicted of participating in the recent riots that shook England. It has already accrued over 200,000 signatures, and the page has been updated to reflect a response from the government.

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